If you live in Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Williamsburg and you are not an Orthodox Jew, perhaps you have wondered about the wooden, shack-like structures that are erected around this same time of the year every year on the patios of several apartment dwellings.
What Are they?
They are a large part of the celebration of Sukkot, the Hebrew word for “Feast of Booths,” one of the three biblically based pilgrimage holidays known as the shalosh regalim.
Sukkot is celebrated this year (Jewish Year 5775), beginning at sunset on Sunday, September 27, through the following Sunday, October 4.
Sukkot also is the plural for sukkah, which is the hut-like structure that the Jews lived in during the 40 years of travel through the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.
Sukkot is celebrated, first of all, by building a sukkah. As a temporary dwelling, the sukkah also represents the fact that all existence is fragile, and therefore Sukkot is a time to appreciate the shelter and the protection of the home and the body.Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, a member of the Chabad community of Crown Heights, said a medium-sized sukkah takes about 4-5 hours to build, but that many of the parts are pre-fabricated for easy assembly:
“When I did a safari in Kenya, I took one of these things called a ‘pop-up sukkah’ that you can use for travel; it’s like blowing up a balloon, and it’s ready. And then you have some of the older people who build it from scratch,” Behrman said. “Also, young community members offer their services to come build your sukkah for a fee.”
American Jews are required to eat in the sukkah for eight days (7 days in Israel), and some even sleep in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday. The sukkah is decorated, and the first day is considered a holy day in which most forms of work and the use of electricity and cell phones are forbidden.Both men and women can sit in the sukkot, and that’s where they have family meals. Also, the tops of the Sukkot cannot be covered by plastic or any synthetic materials while they are in use.
“We do schach, which is covering it with bamboo or palm trees,” said Behrman. “But it has to be natural material.
“One of the requirements of the Sukkot is that you should see the sky. So there cannot be a covering, because you have to be able to look at the stars. Chabad is very strict to Sukkot, so even when it’s pouring rain, we sukkot, and you get caught in the rain.
“But when the weather is nice and the company is good, it’s actually fun to be outdoors,” he said. “You have candles, it’s romantic. Some really put in very nice decorations.”
Also, on Sukkot, you will see Jews carrying etrog (fruit of the citron tree, which looks like a big lemon) and lulav (palm frond), two of the arbat ha’minim (four species) that are held together and waved during the holiday, similar to the ceremony performed at the Temple in the ancient world.
If you live in Crown Heights, you may notice a six-day stretch where there will be dancing in the streets around Kingston Ave and Crown Street. Then, on the fouth day, the dancing is accompanied by live music and singers in what is called the Simchat Beit Hashoeivah. It starts at dusk and can go until 5:00 in the morning.
Behrman added, there will be approximately 4,000 – 5,000 guests and students who come in from Israel to Crown Heights to spend the holiday near 770 Eastern Parkway, the main synagogue of Chabad. The final day of Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabbah. The holiday of Sukkot is immediately followed by the holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.
To wish someone a Happy Sukkot, say “Chag Sameach!” (Happy Holidays!)
And if you’re interested learning more about Sukkot or experiencing the inside of a sukkah, ask one of your Orthodox Jewish neighbors. Most likely, they will invite you in for dinner.
*This is a reprint of an article that originally ran on The Brooklyn Reader on October 7, 2014